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Film / Serpico

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"It's my life you fuck!"
Frank Serpico

This 1973 film, directed by Sidney Lumet and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, was adapted from the non-fiction novel by Peter Maas.

Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) is an idealistic New York City Cop who dreams of becoming a detective. In order to qualify for the famous 'gold shield' he joins the Plainclothes Division, where Serpico's tendency to dress like a hippy — and refusal to take bribes — earn first the bewilderment, and later the active hostility, of his police colleagues. Equally disturbed by the corruption that surrounds him, Serpico keeps trying to inform his superiors of the situation, but all are reluctant to open a can of worms that could jeopardize their own careers and/or alienate their fellow officers. Eventually Serpico is forced to go public — an action that puts his life in danger from those who are sworn to serve and protect.

The Real Life Frank Serpico has said of Al Pacino's performance "Pacino played [me] better than I did."

Adapted into a short-lived 197677 series on NBC, starring David Birney as Serpico.

This film provides examples of:

  • All Crimes Are Equal: In the novel Serpico arrested a cop who tried to shake down his brother for a $2 bribe. Later another cop is furious, asking "How could you do that to a cop over a lousy $2?" Serpico replied "Just because it's only $2, that makes it right?"
  • Beardness Protection Program: Serpico wears a large mustache—and later the hippy beard made famous in the movie—at a time when so-called plainclothes cops are wearing regulation haircuts and shoes. When attached to Vice, however, he adopts a long flowing beard that works too well — word soon spreads among the hookers to beware of "The Beard", and Serpico has to shave again on seeing prostitutes fleeing a bearded man trying in vain to pick them up.
  • Betrayal by Inaction: A precinct captain warns Serpico that being an honest cop in a precinct where many of his fellow officers take bribes makes him a marked man. "They don't have to do anything to you. All they have to do is not be there when you need them." (See Unfriendly Fire below.) That's exactly what happens.
  • Big Friendly Dog: Serpico's Old English Sheepdog, Alfie, whom he adopted while moving in his new apartment.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: In the novel and the film, New York is blighted by drugs, illegal gambling, and prostitution, while the police are either taking bribes to look the other way or too bored by the paperwork to care about making arrests for any reason other than to meet quotas.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Serpico does succeed in creating a body to deal with police corruption. However, his colleagues are implied to have set him up to get shot in the face, after which Serpico bitterly quits and leaves for Switzerland.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Serpico's efforts against corruption are a complete failure until he goes to the press.
  • Damsel in Distress: The black woman who is gang-raped in the beginning is saved by Serpico.
  • Dirty Cop: Both inverted (by Serpico himself) and played straight (by his colleagues).
  • Everyone Has Standards: Averted; taking bribes to ignore gambling is regarded as 'clean money', but drugs is regarded as 'dirty money'. However when Serpico is transferred to the drug squad he finds the same corruption going on.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Played straight. A rapist is beaten up by the detectives and doesn't talk; Serpico tries a softer approach afterwards and gets the names of the other criminals. Then after arresting them, Serpico is threatened with a reprimand for not having his notebook written up, unless he allows the detectives to claim the arrests.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Serpico doesn't take bribes and is a lot nicer to criminals. The latter actually makes him more effective at getting names. He buys one of the rapists a snack, but he wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet in him if he tried to run away. The former makes him bullied and menaced by other cops, but push him too far, like the guy with the knife, and he'll put you to the ground with the gun in your face.
  • Good Policing, Evil Policing: One of the classic examples of moral contrasts within law enforcement, and Based on a True Story, to boot. The plot takes great pains to show that the New York Police in the late Sixties and early Seventies was crooked beyond belief and Frank Serpico eventually couldn't take it anymore and became a whistleblower, an act that nearly got him killed.
  • Handsome Lech: Downplayed in the movie; the real Serpico has been married four times, divorced three, and his fourth and last marriage was the only one ending in death.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management:
    • The police commissioner is informed of Serpico's allegations and promises action, then does nothing at all (when testifying at the Knapp Commission, he claimed to have just forgotten). When the precinct commanders bring the matter to his attention, rather than give it to Internal Affairs he just tells them to investigate the matter themselves.
    • The precinct captain demands to know why Serpico didn't go to him about the corruption. Serpico pointedly remarks that he doesn't know the captain from the next man, as this is the first time his precinct captain has ever deigned to speak to him.
  • Heroic BSoD: Serpico has been told an investigation is "ongoing", but no-one appears to be doing anything while his fellow officers are becoming increasingly suspicious. Serpico then finds himself getting into shouting matches with his Love Interest who eventually breaks up with him.
  • Holier Than Thou: Serpico approaches a staunchly Christian superior in the belief that he will be shocked by his allegations and do something about it. He turns out to be worse than useless, getting Serpico's hopes up by claiming to have gone directly to the police commissioner, and then when nothing happens revealing Serpico's allegations to the precinct captain of the department that Serpico has already told him is entirely corrupt.
  • How We Got Here: The film begins with the incident that caused Serpico's retirement, where he was shot in the face during a drug raid.
  • Irony:
    • The police department only launches a belated investigation into Serpico's allegations after he reveals that he's been to "outside agencies". The truth is those agencies are just as reluctant to investigate the matter as the NYCPD itself is.
    • Further irony in the fact that they refuse to actually do something until Serpico leaks the story to the newspapers, as opposed to preventing him from talking to the papers by investigating.
    • Serpico wants to become a gold shield detective, but can't get in because it's assumed that all plainclothes detectives are corrupt. By the time he does get his gold shield, Serpico no longer cares as it's just a political move after he's shot in the line of duty.
    • In-Universe when Serpico notes that he's not trusted at his new precinct because he's honest.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: While out of his jurisdiction, Serpico shoots a fleeing criminal and hits him in the testicles. Serpico thinks he's in big trouble until he's told there's a warrant out for the criminal...for rape.
  • Let Me Tell You a Story: In the movie, Serpico's girlfriend tells him a fairy story to explain why he's regarded with suspicion for being honest.
  • Manly Facial Hair: Serpico grows a very impressive beard halfway through the movie, becoming a virtual trope setter for future undercover cops both in fiction and real life.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title: Francesco Vincent Serpico lends his surname to the title of the novel and film.
  • More Dakka: Serpico buys a 9mm Browning Hi-Power (13 + 1 rounds) when he thinks his life is in danger from his fellow officers.
    "Are you expecting an army?"
    "No, just a Division."
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The movie changed the name of the police officers accused in the book.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Serpico's efforts to both fight crime and get something done about police corruption are hampered by petty regulations, and his superiors who are more interested in maintaining the image of the department than getting to grips with the problem.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: The plainclothes officers dress in polished shoes and short haircuts, making it obvious that they're cops. Serpico tries to avert the trope by dressing like a hippy.
  • Protagonist Title: The novel and film are both named for the main character, NYPD officer and corruption fighter Frank Serpico.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: After years of superiors who regard him as an embarrassment, Serpico finally meets a precinct captain who genuinely admires him. The two team up to fight crime, but find their own precinct also has a corrupt network and the brass are still reluctant to do anything.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Serpico: a heroic whistleblower to the outside world, but a rat to his colleagues for breaking the code of silence.
  • Stop, or I Will Shoot!: While plainclothes Serpico is trying to capture a thief, a patrolman opens fire on them both right after he gets out of his patrol car, assuming that Serpico, who's just drawn his gun and yelled "Hold it," to be just another armed criminal. Serpico chews him out for this:
    "You stupid fuck! ... You didn't know me? You fire without looking? You fire without a warning, without a fucking brain in your head? Oh, shit. If I buy one, you motherfucker, I'm not gonna buy it from you."
  • Treachery Cover Up: Serpico is repeatedly told that the NYPD "cleans its own laundry"; instead corrupt officers are just transferred so they will be someone else's problem. Moreover corruption is so widespread the officers can simply join another corrupt network in the unit they've been transferred to.
  • Unfriendly Fire: One of Serpico's fellow officers pleads with him to drop his corruption allegations because his life will be in danger. "They don't even have to shoot you. They just have to not be there when you need them." This is played out when Serpico is caught by a closing door during a drug bust, and his police colleagues don't do anything until after he's shot. (See Betrayal by Inaction above.)
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: In the end, a caption tells that Serpico retired from the NYPD after receiving the Medal of Honor, the department's highest accolade,note  and has moved to Switzerland.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Serpico is an idealist cop. He soon realize that the vast majority of his colleagues are corrupt. He tries to fight corruption, but this puts his life at risk. Finally, he is shot in the face.